Derided paintings of past centuries have a knack for hanging in there, in the teeth of critical disdain. Sir Edwin Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen (1851), a portrait of a magnificent stag, much mocked as the staple of the Victorian parlor wall, turns up still as a label on a whiskey bottle. Bubbles (1886) by Sir John Everett Millais began as a meditation on a child’s view of the transient world but soon turned into a soap advertisement, with the name of the manufacturer incorporated into the painting. Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Snake Charmer (circa 1879), in which a nude boy, seen from the rear, displays his control over what appears to be an enormous boa constrictor in the midst of some Turkish or Egyptian architectural pastiche, was a brilliant choice for the cover of Edward Said’s Orientalism. Not that Said had anything to say about Gérôme, or about this picture. But the image comes with such a strong whiff of exploitation—cultural or sexual—that it feels as if it is part of the argument (whatever the argument is).
Memorable images, easily grasped and capable of exerting a strong popular appeal—these are the qualities of the paintings known in France as belonging to the juste milieu, the middle of the road. Writing in these pages in 1982, Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner set out the painterly characteristics of the juste milieu: forms must be clear and unambiguous, nothing fuzzy or imprecise. The subject, not the handling, is paramount. They quote the critic Léon Rosenthal to the effect that interest in such works “does not depend on…aesthetic merit, but on the scene represented: the painter must be a clever dramatist, a good costume designer, an adroit stage director.”* Paul Delaroche fits this bill. In The Little Princes in the Tower (1831), the two fated youths have, by a cute anecdotal touch, been allowed a small dog in their confinement. Now the dog has heard footsteps on the stair. The princes too have heard the steps. The murderers, sent by Richard III, are on their way.
Rosen and Zerner tell us that the principal painters of the juste milieu (Delaroche, Horace Vernet, and Léon Cogniet), “who were enormous favorites with the public in the 1830s and 1840s,…had largely been discredited by 1900.” But that turns out to have been far from the end of the story. Famous works disappeared from view, and disappeared so completely that they were believed lost. Then, to general surprise, they were discovered again, put back on display, and were found, to further surprise perhaps, to have lost none of their power to seduce.
This is what happened to an enormous canvas by Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833). It was believed to have been destroyed in a 1928 storm that flooded the Tate Gallery in London. But decades later a search in the Tate for a quite different work, by the visionary painter John Martin, revealed the ruined Martin canvas, rolled up, for some reason, inside the perfectly preserved Delaroche, as if the Delaroche had been considered a sort of wrapping paper. The canvas was returned to its proper home, the National Gallery, where it was cleaned and rehung and became immensely popular. It is still one of the most popular paintings in the collection.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905), the leading figure among the next generation of Salon painters, suffered a similar eclipse. His Nymphs and Satyr was exhibited at the Salon of 1873. The nymphs, in this forest scene, are dragging a dusky satyr, whom they have perhaps caught spying on their bathing arrangements, down to the water’s edge. The satyr resists. In the catalog of the original exhibition was printed a text that has since dropped from view, lines from the Silvae of Statius: “Conscious of his shaggy hide, and from childhood untaught to swim, he dares not trust himself to the deep waters.” The use of these lines is surprising, for the painting reverses the situation described in the poem. In the story Statius is telling, the nymphs are being pursued by Pan, who is intent on having his way with Pholoë, one of their number. Reaching the riverbank, Pholoë manages to avoid Pan (with the assistance of Diana) by plunging into the water.
The story, a variation on the myth of Pan and Syrinx, is unambiguous. Pan is described as the wanton or impudent enemy of the nymph who so narrowly avoids rape. But Bouguereau, who liked to plan his paintings meticulously in advance, gave the situation his own erotic twist. The satyr or Pan figure is outnumbered. The nymphs see an opportunity for some fun, and they call others of their number to join in the humiliation of the scared goat-man. By an act of carefully calibrated bowdlerization, the satyr’s body has been presented in such a way that we are unable to see whether he is in a state of sexual arousal (as in earlier representations of such scenes he would be). A kind of decorum is maintained. In Statius, the satyr’s horns are described in a word that translates variously as “monstrous,” “impudent,” or “exciting lust.” Here one of the nymphs holds the satyr by the horns as she beckons to her fellows. The whole performance is like a trick played upon propriety. Charles Garnier, the architect of the Paris Opéra, writing in defense of Bouguereau, said that “he has depicted a rather risky subject with charm and delicacy; he has represented nudity with modesty and voluptuousness without lewdness; he has raised art to its proper level.”
This is not the way the painting was perceived in America, where in due course it made its way to the Hoffman House Hotel in New York, on the corner of Broadway and 24th Street, a triumphant purchase by the celebrated murderer Edward Stiles Stokes, who had recently served time in Sing Sing for the shooting of “Diamond Jim” Fisk. Stokes placed Bouguereau’s work directly opposite the hotel bar, under a red velvet canopy. In this position, it could be conveniently viewed by anyone ordering a drink—that is, by anyone male. Supposedly women were able to see the masterpiece before 10 am, although it is highly unlikely that they could do so unchaperoned. But for men, it was one of the sights of New York. It became an object of pilgrimage for visitors, as well as a daily sight for the Tammany Hall crowd who treated the Hoffman House as their club. Not only that: it inspired other hoteliers—at the Palmer House in Chicago and the Palace Hotel in San Francisco—to invest in their own “barroom nudes.”
Nymphs and Satyr founded a genre. And characteristically, for its period as for ours, it inspired a wealth of merchandising. Where Landseer’s stag came to mean whiskey, and Millais’s boy soap, Bouguereau’s composition became a cigar box: Hoffman House Favorita Especiales. Indeed, if you Google “Bouguereau cigar-box” you can find not only the original painting reproduced in color lithography on such a box, but also a contemporary-dress parody of it, in which the women have found a dandified peeping Tom and are about to dunk him in the sea. The title of this comic version—No Harm—tells us just how far the image has been drained of its original meaning. Rape has turned by degrees to fun and games, and in the process “nudity with modesty”—if such it ever were—has become obscene. Legally so: the censor and self-proclaimed “weeder in God’s garden” Anthony Comstock, unable to ban the painting itself (it seems to have enjoyed the protection of Grover Cleveland), declared reproductions of it to be illegal. Cigar boxes, in this period, turn out to have been regular purveyors of lubricious images.
In 1901 Stokes, the owner of Nymphs and Satyr, died, and his paintings were sold to a collector whose wife, it is said, put her foot down and refused to have this obscene work in her house. The canvas seems to have been consigned to storage by the Durand-Ruel gallery and forgotten by all concerned. It was more or less worthless anyway (Bouguereau’s reputation being at its nadir), and so it remained, lost to the world, until in 1942 it was found by chance, its ownership was ascertained, and it was sold to Robert Sterling Clark, who was putting together the celebrated collection now housed in Williamstown. Clark’s taste looks canny enough when perceived through the carefully curated hang at Williamstown, less so when viewed through the two-volume catalog of the entire nineteenth-century collection, which contains many low-quality crowd-pleasers. Was there something cynical in the taste that acquired the original barroom nude? Clark said, “Fact is, I believe, that really at least 3/4 of the American population would really prefer a nice Bouguereau to any other kind of art.”
A nice Bouguereau. There were nasty Bouguereaus as well, including one currently on view in Milwaukee—Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1862), in which Orestes tries to block his ears as the three angry Furies come at him with the body of his murdered mother, Clytemnestra, in tow, and three hands point to the dagger plunged in her breast, clear and unambiguous proof of his guilt, nothing fuzzy or imprecise about it. This painting, when it hung in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, did not please, and in 1953 it was sold off. Walter P. Chrysler Jr. bought it for the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia.
What a different impression, overall, Bouguereau would make as an artist if he had stuck with his nasty self, which was capable of such inventions as this, or his Dante and Virgil in Hell (1850), in which two nude male figures are locked in an eternal combat, the one sinking his teeth into the other’s jugular. These turn out to be Capocchio and Gianni Schicchi, subject of the briefest of mentions in Dante, but dwelled on here to produce a unique, fearsome, and morbidly erotic image (as far from Puccini’s later comic opera as it is possible to imagine). The invention has its origin in John Flaxman’s illustrations to Dante, but with the violence taken to a new level as the assailant plants his knee in the small of his victim’s back while applying his vampiric strength to the task.
The problem with nasty Bouguereau was that it didn’t sell. The problem with nice Bouguereau was that it sold so well that it undermined the intermittent impulse to unleash nasty Bouguereau. The sort of eroticism Bouguereau peddled from the Salon demanded a strict understanding, a kind of collusion with the public. This is respectable. That, on the other hand, would be scandalous. So much depended on the depilation of women. Still, it is sometimes hard to see how these distinctions were made. Faun and Bacchante (1860) has a smiling faun (human enough save for his pointed ears) supporting a largely naked bacchante, whom he has been plying with wine. In a short while he is going to take advantage of her drunken condition, just as Pan took advantage of every one of the drunken Maenads. Meanwhile we are invited to admire the bacchante’s pert nipple.
This kind of erotic art could be shown at the Salon in 1861 without scandal. Twenty-three years later, when John Singer Sargent showed the portrait he later called Madame X, Paris was aghast at the licentious placement of one of the straps of the sitter’s dress. Mortified at this public outrage (which went on to destroy his career as a portraitist in France), Sargent asked the administration of the Salon if he could be permitted to retouch the strap in question. The request was refused, but “the venerable Monsieur Bouguereau…took the opportunity to lecture the young artist on the danger of such unconventional practices which, he pointed out, led to breaking up of families and other dire consequences.”
Of course there was a big difference between the scandalous Madame X—a woman well known in society—and the originals of the various nymphs and satyrs populating Bouguereau’s racier canvases. The latter were working-class models and probably Italian. (We know the name of the man who modeled for Nymphs and Satyr: Antonio Tortolani. Most likely he belonged to a family or even a village in Italy that was in the habit of providing models for Rome, Paris, and London.) Their antics as mythological creatures might be perceived as taking place at some remove. Nevertheless I find it striking that the faun with his drunken bacchante was hung not in a rowdy Tammany Hall drinking hole, but in Haussner’s Restaurant in Baltimore, as part of a large collection of nineteenth-century genre paintings that covered the walls of the bar, two dining rooms, and the banquet hall, and where, until 1999, when Haussner’s closed, it helped to establish a “cultured ambience.”
In the mid-1950s, the owner of General Foods, Marjorie Merriweather Post, purchased Night (1883), one of Bouguereau’s pretext allegories (where the subject provides a flimsy pretext for the familiar voluptuous nude). She knew exactly what to do with it at Hillwood, her newly acquired Washington, D.C., house: she hung it in the men’s coat room, where it still (when not on loan, as in Milwaukee) hangs today.
The Bouguereau revival began in 1984 with an exhibition that traveled from the Petit-Palais in Paris to Montreal and the Wadsworth Atheneum. The idea was to promote a reexamination of so-called pompier art (a seemingly snobbish term implying that the paintings of the juste milieu are the sort of art that firemen would produce, if they could paint), and to make a case for looking at Bouguereau with fresh eyes. When an artist has been not only revered by his students (who used to save his burned matches and cigarette butts as relics) but also in a position of great power over many years, a resentment can build up against him that can take generations to dissipate. Bouguereau had a great deal of patronage to deal out, in the form of opportunities to exhibit in the Salon, medals and awards, and so forth. If you were his student, you increased your chances of success—or so it was certainly believed.
The 1984 catalog, though not lavishly produced, is full of interesting information. The show differed from the Milwaukee exhibition in presenting numerous drawings and preparatory works, and suggestive comparisons with sculpture and ephemeral art. By contrast, Milwaukee takes forty-odd paintings from American collections and looks at the way they became distributed in the US, typically first by appealing to the taste of industrialists, then by being given to museums, and finally through some minor shuffling as works were deaccessioned and passed around. I came away from Milwaukee curious to know what Bouguereau’s drawings were like, whether there might have been oil sketches and cartoons, what his church decorations were like, and with many other questions, which the 1984 catalog very often answered. One may say that these questions were beyond the remit of the current show. But a biography or chronology might have come in handy.
In 2006 the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa mounted a show called “In the Studios of Paris: William Bouguereau and his American Students.” Among other points of interest, an essay by Charles Pearo tells the story of Elizabeth Jane Gardner, an American artist who eventually became Bouguereau’s wife, after a very long wait for an obstructive mother to pass to her reward. During this long wait, it was common knowledge that Gardner had been living a few doors away from Bouguereau at two successive addresses. She was his student. Her work looked very like his, and people drew their own conclusions. Here is the critic Theodor Child, reacting to the award of a Salon medal to Gardner in 1887:
There is not a single member of the jury of the Salon who is not thoroughly acquainted with the circumstances [of Gardner’s medal], and who is not aware of the effective artistic protection accorded by M. Bouguereau to his charming next-door neighbor…. The list [of medalists] is rendered ridiculous by the presence in it of the name of Miss Elizabeth Gardner, over the production of whose work a mystery has always hovered. It is said that certain New York dealers buy Miss Gardner’s pictures simply because they believe that M. Bouguereau has painted on them, if he has not painted them entirely; and they sell these pictures to their customers with the express understanding that they contain work by the great Bouguereau. It is unpleasant to have to say disagreeable things about a lady; but it is nevertheless my conviction that Miss Gardner’s painting is, to a very great extent, humbug.
One feels very differently about Gardner when one learns that, years before, acting in emulation of Rosa Bonheur, she dressed up as a man in order to take the entrance exam for the (all-male) drawing school at the Gobelins Tapestry Manufacture. She got in and had been working there for two months before she realized she needed police permission to dress as a man. She applied to the police. They were perfectly happy to oblige her. Her fellow students treated her courteously. She was able to cross-dress in order to study the male and female nude. Thomas Eakins, a student in Paris at the time, later wrote:
But no woman could ever hope to paint like Miss Gardner or Miss Clementina Tompkins and live at all times the conventional life. She must assume professional privileges…. She must take on the right to examine naked men and women…. And without these privileges, she could not hope in any way to compete with men nor with the intelligent of her own sex, and a certificate of prudery would not in this age help sell a figure piece by a young lady.
Eakins understood her quandary. To succeed, Gardner had to abandon, to some extent, the conventional life. And that was enough to destroy her reputation. But Eakins also said, “I do not believe that great painting or sculpture or surgery will ever be done by women.” Buried within the sympathy there lay this poisoned pill.